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Speaking Out

Blood, Sweat and Tiers

Unknown to the hoards of anxious hedonists who make up One University, a dedicated band of men and women is working to choose prime candidates for the deanship of SAS.  Given this search, given the fact that this university specializes in the formation of search committees, and given the further fact that the operations of search committees often make the drawing of straws seem like an exact science, it seems high time that I reveal my Search Committee Two-Tiered Test Program for Short-List Decanal Candidates.

The first tier of these tests is basic aptitude.  Since a dean must be able to withstand massive frustration, the obvious test is the Sisyphus Shove (which is self-explanatory, except, perhaps, for people in Classics).  A successful dean must also be able to emerge from the Provost’s office with all sorts of approvals and concessions.  The appropriate test is the Supermarket Sweep (the candidate, as TV viewers know, is given an empty cart and a set amount of time to fill it from a supermarket’s shelves with the most expensive items).  The Prolonged Patience test is essential, since a dean spends hours on hours listening to people whine and complain.  This test measures the amount of time a candidate can listen to a recording of whales’ songs, played alternatively at 16 and 78 rpm, without screaming or bolting.

The second tier of tests measures actual decanal skills.  The first is designed to determine if the candidate can converse in a knowledgeable way with the heads of the extraordinary variety of departments that make up SAS.  Sample questions for the candidate are: Why did Paradise lose? (literature); will the phlogiston theory ever come back? (chemistry); why is political science neither political or scientific? (history); are you into plate tectonics? (earth sciences); which falls faster, a pound of lead or a pound of graduation speeches? (physics or development).

The second test on this tier is of meeting management (that is, the management of meetings), asking the candidate where one would put an agenda item that must be passed but is unpopular, how to arrange for a negative vote on an item placed on the agenda by faculty demand, and how to derail discussion of an agenda item without pretending to have a stroke and being carried from the room.

Since one of the most important functions of a dean is to raise money, especially for disciplines that no sensible agency would fund, such as humanities, the candidate is given an hour to ask travelers and layabouts in 30th Street Station for cash contributions to a new edition of Beowulf.

All would agree that these tests would be much more efficacious than the usual dossier reading, anecdote swapping, and tip-toe interviewing, as well as infinitely more entertaining.  Indeed, the first tier could be videotaped and shown as a TV “Special,” thereby adding to the increasingly exiguous SAS budget.  However, they lack the pageantry and apparent suspense of my favorite scheme for choosing a dean.  Imagine, if you will, all the members of the SAS faculty lined up to try to extract a magnificent sword stuck in the Broken Button outside Van Pelt. Actually (this is off the record), this sword would be secured by an electronic device controlled in the Provost’s office.  Need one say more?

It is a measure of the man that the Provost, when proposed this scheme to him, countered with his Shrinking the Psychological Size of the University by Instantaneous Enforced Early Retirement without Pay or Benefits Plan.  If you don’t see me around, you will know why.

Clifton Cherpack, Sometime Professor of Romance Languages


Originally published in Almanac February 5, 1985




Cherpack Letters Index: